In Which Beowulf Gives Literally Zero Fucks: Beowulf, translated by Maria Dahvana Headley
I'm the strongest and the boldest and the bravest and the best
Yes. I mean, I MAY have bathed in the blood of beasts,
Netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
And come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
And made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me!
They're asking for it, and I deal them death.
Prior to Headley's new translation, I had read Beowulf three times in my life, and what I had to say about it was this: " I didn't like it then, and I didn't like it the second time, and I only put up with it a third time because I'm on a decade-long literary odyssey and it's on all the Great Book lists (best and only surviving European manuscript of the seventh century and all). It should have predated Homer by a millennium. The descriptions of mortal combat are about as dull as it is possible to be while describing people fighting monsters. It doesn't even have quotable throwaway lines. It can, however, be read in about 90 minutes, and people of north European ancestry are expected to be at least familiar enough with it to recognize Beowulf, Grendel and Hrothgar. "
In other words, dull-dull-dull.
Headley's new translation, by contrast, is glorious, a feast of language that breathes life into the ancient tale while being fair to the original. In Headley's ancient Scandinavia, the warriors call each other "Dude" and "Bro", trash-talk each other's masculinity, and boast about what happens to people who fuck with them. Grendel is a one-man Town v. Gown revolt against the elitist frat-house jocks who partay all night and who won't turn the damn music down. His mother is a proud warrior woman bent on avenging her family's blood. Headley doesn't quite specify that the victorious Geats make armpit farts and crush beer cans on their heads in celebration, but they do quaff their brewskis. Oh, do they ever quaff them (quaffing is like guzzling, only it involves a lot more splashing of said brewskis into their capacious beards)!
One supercilious reviewer accused Headley of dumbing down great literature to appease high school sophomores. Fuck that. I'm almost 54 years old, and I needed this translation. It made me realize how much cool stuff I'd missed the first three times because my eyes were all glazed over, moving across the dreary translations like a parched turtle going across the desert. Very highest recommendations.
Odd vignettes: Locus Solus, by Raymond Roussel
The villa contains several rooms fitted out as luxurious model laboratories, run by numerous assistants. Here the professor devotes his entire life to science--for he is a bachelor with no commitments, whose large fortune at once removes any material difficulties incurred by the various targets he sets himself in the course of his strenuous labors.
The book consists of the eccentric professor giving a tour of his house and grounds to a group including the unnamed narrator, so that we can see what weirdnesses a genius with unlimited money can do with plot devices.
It consists of a series of "exposition, then explanation" stories: for example, the group beholds a woman prick her thumb on a rose thorn, causing her to bleed on a letter she is holding, then look away from the letter, directly into a red glass on which the sun is shining, causing a bright red glare to flash into her eye. She then goes into paroxysms of hysteria. we are then told that the woman is the reanimated corpse of a famous countess who went fatally mad when the sight of her blood on a letter, and the bright flash of red from a glass had triggered her childhood memory of watching her father mauled to death by a tiger. the scientist has had her corpse reanimated so that it can perform the dramatic moment, over and over. And then we go on to the next exhibit, without further comment. And then, when we've witnessed them all, the evening breaks up and we all go home.
roussel is weird.
The Dude of Brood: Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki
Though I had resolved to live as if I were dead, my heart would at times respond to the activity of the outside world, and seem almost to dance with pent-up energy. But as soon as I tried to break my way through the cloud that surrounded me, a frighteningly powerful force would rush upon me from I know not where, and grip my heart tight, until I could not move. A voice would say to me, "You have no right to do anything. Stay where you are." Whatever desire I might have had for action would suddenly leave me. After a moment, the desire would come back, and I would once more try to break through. Again I would be restrained. In fury and grief I would cry out, "Why do you stop me?" With a cruel laugh, the voice would answer, "You know very well why." Then i would bow in hopeless surrender.
The Other Dude of Brood: Rosshalde, by Herman Hesse
It was as though Otto had never fully understood his friend until that moment. Now he saw deep into the dark spring from which Johann's soul drew the strength and suffering in which is was steeped. And at the same time he felt a deep, joyous consolation at the fact that it was he, the old friend, to whom the sufferer had bared himself, whom he had accused, and whom he had begged for help.
Hesse was Swiss. writing about people in France; Soseki was Japanese. The uncanny similarities of the respective brooding protagonists may be due to the books being published, on opposite sides of the globe, right after WWI, in an atmosphere of international gloom.
Kokoro is about the friendship a narrator feels for the man he calls "Sensei", who lives with his wife near the university, visits a particular gravestone every so often, and who pointedly hides his light under a bushel, waiting for death. The narrator tries to learn Sensei's secret, and when it comes, it seems to me to be one of the more anticlimactic moments in literature. Sensei is upset about petty everyday betrayals by family members, that he chose not to fight, and racked with existential guilt over a tragedy he did not cause.
Meanwhile, the protagonist of Rosshalde is a painter who lives on a grand French estate, in separate quarters from his alienated wife, his younger son, and one manservant. The elder son is away at school, and is also alienated from the paterfamilias, who loves only the small boy. Like Sensei, he agonizes over minor past mistakes. then the small boy becomes ill and might die, and the husband, the wife, and the elder son...are not particularly brought together by shared grief. They just muddle about, and the husband thinks about going off and leaving the estate to the wife.
Very little plot in either book. Just character and atmosphere and a sense of universal ennui. Post WWI literature was depressing, and the authors hadn't even gotten to the sequel yet.
Rough Draft of the Thriller Genre: The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan
"I told the police you had gone over the hill. This is a lucky morning for you, Mr. Richard Hannay", he said, smiling. As he spoke, his eyes half closed and immediately I remembered Scudder's description of a man who could 'hood his eyes like a hawk.' I saw that I had walked into the hands of my enemies.
One nice thing about continuing the Western Canon past WWI is that popular literature is now included, like Edgar Rice Borroughs and John Buchan. Not so nice is how clunky some of the dawn of the 'espionage thriller' tales were, and how many improbable coincidences strain the suspension of disbelief.
Hannay, the protagonist, suddenly involved in an espionage plot and suspected of a murder he didn't commit, chooses to flee to a random, remote part of Scotland---which just happens to be where he can find a relative of the very member of the Foreign Office who can help him, and also where the random house he dodges into just happens to be the home of one of the spies. Also, Buchan can't make up his mind whether there are in England (1) three German spies, so expert in appearing English as to fool close inspection, or (2) such a large network of spies that there is nowhere one can be safe from their assassins.
Stick with the Hitchcock movie.